Saturday, January 2, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part I

I read. It’s what I do. And in 2020, when staying home was pretty much the best option available, I read more than I have for a long time. I have books. I have tea. And therefore life was not without hope. It was a year of comfort reading in many ways, though – of rereading things that I had enjoyed in the past and looking for new books that would provide some refuge in the middle of the howling maelstrom of insanity that was the year.

I’ve been keeping track of the books I’ve read almost since I started this blog – more than a decade now.

This is the list for 2020.


The End of the Day (Claire North)

This is perhaps one of the loveliest books I have ever read, despite the rather dark subject matter. Charlie is an Englishman, reserved in the way that culture tends to be. He likes people. He likes to travel. And he has a job as the Harbinger of Death. It’s a real job too – there’s a central office in Milton Keynes and all sorts of paperwork and the like, and sometimes he gets to meet the boss. Death is, well, Death is what people see. It varies. Charlie’s job is to go before – sometimes as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning, but always to give a small gift and to listen, to hear the humanity and the life that is, before it is taken away, maybe soon, maybe not. He doesn’t hide this and he seems well known in his travels – one of the odder things about the book is that he is always up front about being the Harbinger of Death and people just accept it as normal. But the job can be taxing. North writes this book in a fragmented and distracted sort of way – there are many chapters that are just snippets of sentences and conversations, one after the other, and even when Charlie is talking he often falls into that sort of disjointed pattern. He has a girlfriend named Emmi, a man named Patrick who isn’t quite a traveling companion but whom he greets as a sort of friend, and a surprising number of people who hate him for what he does and who he represents, many of whom work for various governments. But Death is Death and the other riders of the Apocalypse – War, Pestilence, Famine – are what they are as well. They walk the earth and everyone sees them and they do their jobs whether invited or not. They can be summoned, North observes, but once summoned they cannot be controlled. It’s a book that has a lot to say in a quiet and thoughtful sort of way, and while I would hesitate to recommend it to all readers it may well be one of my new favorite books.

Bitter With Baggage Seeks Same: The Life and Times of Some Chickens (Sloane Tanen)

This is more of a picture book than a story, but I ended up with it after a Christmas gift game so I read it. It’s funny. It’s basically staged photos of fluff chickens made of yellow craft supplies, each one accompanied by a caption. It was a nice change from a novel about Death, really.

Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting (Michael Perry)

Michael Perry tends to write warm-hearted memoirs about his life in rural and small-town northern Wisconsin, and if you enjoy that sort of thing then this is for you – he’s a good writer who can take you from humor to sorrow in the space of a page, and he’s got a sharp eye for detail. I first found him in Population 485, his description of being a First Responder in New Auburn – a town not all that far from where Kim grew up – and I’ve been hooked ever since. This book is pretty much exactly what the subtitle says it is. By this point in his life he’s married with a stepdaughter and a baby on the way, and they’ve bought a farm a ways out from New Auburn. It’s a story of his efforts to build a chicken coop for a flock he’d like to have, of the two pigs he raises, the people he works with, and mostly about his family – both the one on the farm and the one that raised him. A lapsed member of a small but strict Christian sect, he spends a lot of time on matters of faith (broadly defined) and treats them with warm memory and respect, and he generally celebrates the rural life. As a confirmed urbanite and someone who tends toward wit rather than gentle humor it is kind of an odd match for me to read his stuff – while I am happy that others enjoy rural life, I genuinely don’t understand the appeal of it – but I like his writing and have read almost all of his books. I met him once when he came to speak at the library here in Our Little Town. He was a gracious man and an entertaining speaker.

The Dragon and the George (Gordon R. Dickson)

This is not a great book but it is one that I have been looking forward to reading for over forty years. I passed it up in a bookstore in Sea Isle City NJ back in the 1970s and for some reason it has stuck in my head ever since as an unattainable loss. But in an age of second-hand bookstores no book is truly ever unattainable, and when I found it in Madison in late 2019 I figured I’d spend the $2 and see how it was. It’s, well, okay. Very 1970s. It’s a single-layer plot (problem-resolution-next problem, without any crosscutting problems to complicate things) centered around Angie and Jim, who are two overworked and underpaid academics (some things never change) scrabbling to get by in 1970s America. Early on Angie’s boss somehow projects her bodily into one of those Tolkienesque quasi-medieval worlds that were required of all fantasy novels in the ‘70s. Jim then browbeats the boss into sending him back after her, but only his mind ends up making the transition, and it gets lodged in the body of Gorbash, a strong but not overly bright dragon. The other dragons think he’s nuts, except for his uncle, Smrgol. He seeks out Angie and meets Companions – a wolf, a knight (a “george," and the derivation of that should be obvious), a mage, an assortment of others. There is an innkeeper, mostly for comic relief. Dark Powers lurk darkly and powerfully and are eventually assaulted. Angie doesn’t reappear until nearly the last page – she’s the object of the action rather than an actor herself, which is pretty much on par for the women in the book – and in the end it wraps up fairly neatly. I’m glad I found it and read it, though I wouldn’t exactly tell people to run out and do the same.

Ivan the Stupid and Ivania the Klutz (Pat Hall)

This is an illustrated book for children that was written by a friend of mine, and it is just lovely. It’s the story of three men named Ivan and three women named Ivania and the two Babas who try to matchmake them all together. The title characters are the hardest to match, but with patience and perhaps a little less nudging it all works out. It’s a charming little story with equally charming illustrations by Rachael Balsaitis, and if you have someone in your family who’s about 5 or 6 they would probably enjoy it. I did.

In Sicily (Norman Lewis)

One of the great lessons that I learn every time I read about Sicily is that my ancestors were fortunate to get out. It is by all accounts a place of great natural beauty, though even that can kill you and everyone around you if the volcano goes off, but the sheer human misery of poverty, Mafia, brigandage, rigidly conservative culture, and endemic corruption far outweighs the scenery. Nevertheless Norman Lewis loves the place. In this slim volume he recounts several trips’ worth of observations and stories stretching over the entire second half of the twentieth century. He loves the people. He loves the scenery. He’s surprisingly okay with the Mafia and the corruption. He does not run into any brigands, but he tells stories about them – usually stories that don’t end well for anyone, including the brigands. Perhaps someday I’ll go visit, but I suspect it will be just that.

The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Robert Darnton)

Robert Darnton blurs the historiographical line between social history – with its emphasis on giving voice to the voiceless, its reliance on statistical methods in the absence of extensive writings by its subjects, and its focus on race, class, and gender as the most relevant of all human categories – and cultural history, which tends to focus on how ideas and paradigms flow through societies and therefore privileges the articulate and, as a side effect of that, emphasizes the powerful and the educated. When you mix all that together what you get is mentalité history, a peculiarly French thing, and this is one of the classic texts of that style of historical writing in English. Darnton’s focus is on eighteenth-century French culture prior to the Revolution, and in six rather uneven chapters he works his way through a series of separate issues unconnected except for time and place. The title essay, for example, focuses on the ritual massacre of a number of cats by workmen and seeks to understand why they would do such a thing in the first place and then why they thought it was so funny. In order to do that, Darnton says, you need to reconstruct their entire worldview – a difficult if not impossible task, though one he is game to try. Other chapters include a fascinating look at how “fairy tales” were told by French peasants in the 18th century, an equally fascinating look at one police officer’s voluminous files on French intellectuals at precisely the time when such creatures became a separate category of person, a somewhat less fascinating look at a merchant’s obsessive description of his own city, and some more straightforward intellectual history – how ideas bounce through time divorced from their social context in many ways – about the Encyclopedie and Rousseau, which frankly were a bit of a chore to read. I had to read the title essay in graduate school, which tells you the audience these were written for, but that said there were some worthwhile moments in here.

Accelerando (Charles Stross)

Nothing ages like the future. This is a book about the singularity – that moment when our computers become more sentient than we are that science fiction authors used to rattle on about back when that was seen as something that might possibly a good thing – and it follows several (it’s actually hard to say how many) generations of the Macx family as they work their way through it. Manfred lives in a world just a few years from our own, bumming around as an idea man making others rich and exporting much of his cognition to an array of external devices that are as much a part of his identity as his own brain. He marries Pamela (which ends in an acrimonious divorce). He takes up with Annette. Eventually he has a child named Amber, and we follow her as she founds her own kingdom in orbit around Jupiter and eventually uploads her consciousness into a spaceship exploring the outer reaches of the known. There are space lobsters, which makes sense in context. Amber (or at least a version of Amber) has a son named Sirhan, who in turn has another son who is a version of Manfred and by this time we are so far away from both Earth and the present that it’s hard to say who is human anymore. There’s also a robot cat who is far more than he appears. The general gist of this is a cautionary tale is that the Singularity probably won’t go very well for regular meat humans and we should therefore be careful what we wish for with our technology. The book is well written – Stross is a great writer both for plot and for simply putting sentences together, an underrated skill – but it carries its early 21st century publication date fairly openly in its tone and concerns. Reading it in 2020 felt in some ways like reading Asimov in the 1990s – you knew this was beyond the bleeding edge of conception when it was published but it felt dated by the time you got to it. It’s a well-crafted and entertaining book, particularly if you understand the technology and concepts (some of which, admittedly, went over my head), but it is definitely of a time.

It Devours! (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

There are strange things afoot in Night Vale, which is pretty much par for the course in a city where all the conspiracy theories are true and you’re more likely to run into a Lovecraftian horror on the street than find your way to the nearest town. Nilanjana is a relative newcomer to Night Vale, someone who doesn’t fit in and has learned to take the half-hearted cries of “Interloper!” whenever she is out as a greeting rather than a threat. She is a scientist and works for Carlos – beautiful, perfect Carlos – in a lab that is about as dysfunctional as the rest of the town. Darryl is a native, a member of the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, worshipping a deity that will someday eat the world but is generally a decent sort otherwise. When mysterious holes keep swallowing up buildings and citizens of Night Vale and the city government doesn’t seem to be doing it intentionally, Nilanjana and Darryl will find their paths increasingly intertwined until the mystery gets solved, more or less, and they can get on with their lives. Fink and Cranor are epigrammatic writers so there are more than a few funny bits in here to soften the bleak weirdness, and if you like this sort of thing (as I do) then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

Mohawk (Richard Russo)

All of the things that you expect to find in a Richard Russo novel are here in his first published book – the small upstate New York town, the tired, well-intentioned people struggling against the constraints of a dying economy and relationships that haven’t changed since middle school, the general sense of decent people being passed by but doing the best they can, the underlying tensions that such a life entails. He’s a wonderful writer and storyteller (even if, as a friend pointed out, he never really knows how to end a book) and pretty much everything he’s written is worth reading. Mohawk NY was once a leatherworking town but the tanneries are dying and so is a good chunk of the population. There’s a taproom where people meet. There are several couples and their children and parents who have long histories of misunderstandings and rapprochements, or just long histories. It’s the mid-late 1960s and Vietnam is a looming cloud on the horizon. And people are just trying to live their lives as best they can, sometimes succeeding and more often not. This is a quiet, melancholy sort of book, and one that will resonate with anyone who has ever not lived up to their own hopes and dreams.

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English (Lynne Murphy)

Lynne Murphy is both a professor of linguistics and an expatriate American living in England, and as such she has a lot to say about the relationship in the title of the book – so much so that she actually runs a blog on the subject, on which one suspects much of this material was first tried out for size. Murphy’s basic position is that the two forms of English (“nationlects” in her own rather ungainly term for them – you would think a linguist could come up with something more euphonious) are not nearly as different or as threatening to each other as alarmists want us to think, and not nearly as similar or merging as others do, either. They’re just different enough to be interesting. She spends a great deal of time on things like grammar, vocabulary, and accent – as you would hope if you’re the sort of person who would pick up this book for fun, as I am – and she tells her side of things in a cheerful and generally entertaining way. If you’re interested in the subject, this is a good book to have on hand.

Engel’s England: Thirty-Nine Counties, One Capital, and One Man (Matthew Engels)

In 1974 the British government – in what Matthew Engels clearly regards as a fit of lunacy – redrew the historic borders of its counties to make them more, well, something. Modern. Rational. Whatever. But to a traditionalist like Engels, this was a travesty of history, and an assault upon the local culture which often sustained these places. Fast forward four decades and Engels – now a journalist for several major British papers – has decided to visit each one of the former historic counties (modern boundaries notwithstanding) and write about his impressions of them. He generally laments their forced changes – none of them seemed to have been improved by the events of 1974, in his eyes – and the state of modern Britain as he finds it. Engels clearly loves England and its many and varied places, though. While he finds nowhere without problems he also finds nowhere without virtues. But the overall impression is of a country that has seen better days, whose inhabitants are fighting a rearguard and ultimately futile action against decay. It’s a fascinating and ultimately rather melancholy love letter to a place the author clearly regards as fading.

The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor)

Most Night Vale novels have a deep streak of black humor to them – the kind of darkly funny sensibility that makes the eldritch horrors of the town bearable and keeps the story just this side of nightmare. This novel doesn’t have that, not really. It is instead a grim and foreboding tale of how the Faceless Old Woman of the title came to Night Vale and why. It’s told in long flashback sequences of her earlier life, interspersed with brief chapters where she’s helping/tormenting a current resident of Night Vale – guiding him toward marriage and family, aiding his career, messing with his head, committing a wide range of crimes. This backstory begins in the late 18th century somewhere on the coast of Italy where a young woman (who is never named) grows up as the only child of a loving father whose wife died in childbirth. There is a friend named Albert, and her father’s assistant, named Edmond. And there are a number of mysterious, vaguely piratical organizations – The Duke’s Own, The Order of the Labyrinth – whose purpose remains unclear though their intent does not. Eventually the woman and her small group of friends that she makes along the way will join them both, as part of a life devoted to vengeance, becoming an instrument of violence and hatred that ultimately leads to her own not-quite-death after which she becomes the not-quite-ghost whose path leads her to haunt Night Vale. And in the end the two stories merge in a fairly chilling and remorseless sort of way. There is no humor here, just a heavy, oddly-Eastern-European-feeling story of tragedy, loss, failure, and senseless evil.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; Mostly Harmless (Douglas Adams)

I’ve reviewed all of these books here before and I don’t particularly see any need to do so again. If you are familiar with them, you already know. And if you’re not familiar with them, you need to become so. It’s that simple. Nobody has ever been able to match Douglas Adams for the sheer brilliance and weirdness of his ideas or the comedy behind them, despite publisher blurbs on every comic SF/F novel over the last 40 years trying to assert otherwise. For those who don’t know, these books follow the story of Arthur Dent, a rather downtrodden Englishman whose friend – an alien named Ford Prefect – spirits him off the Earth shortly before it is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass and who then spends five novels generally coming out on the short end of the universe’s sense of humor. There are ideas in here tossed off as throwaway jokes that would have been worth entire novels, and phrases and concepts that I’ve adopted pretty much whole into my vocabulary and world view – sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly melancholy in places, and perfect comfort reading for these parlous times. There was a sixth book – a continuation of the series written by Eoin Colfer (whose main claim to fame is the Artemis Fowl series) – and it is a good book but it is a good Eoin Colfer book rather than a good Douglas Adams book, and so I will skip it this time around.

The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (Douglas Adams)

This is a collection of bits and bobs that people pulled off of Douglas Adams’ various computers after his untimely death from a heart attack at age 49, and mostly it makes you wish he had had more time to complete everything – something that likely would have taken decades, given a) his prodigious output of ideas and b) his legendary ability to miss deadlines. It’s divided into three broad categories (Life, the Universe, and Everything, of course) and it covers everything from random snippets and essays to the unfinished novel of the title – one that was a Dirk Gently novel when Adams died but which he was actively considering changing into a new Hitchhiker’s novel, since he was unhappy with the rather bleak ending of Mostly Harmless and wanted to bring the characters back one more time. My personal favorite was a short little essay entitled “For Children Only,” which begins thusly: “You will need to know the difference between Friday and a fried egg. It’s quite a simple difference, but an important one. Friday comes at the end of the week, whereas a fried egg comes out of a hen” and then continues on in that sort of gently absurdist vein for another two pages. The world is a poorer place without Douglas Adams.

The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts (Douglas Adams, with Geoffrey Perkins, ed.)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been a series of novels, a television show, and a movie, but it started out as a radio drama – two seasons of half a dozen episodes each, originally broadcast on BBC Radio in 1978 and 1980. The radio show has some of the things that made it into the books, though often in different versions or in a different order, and contains much that is not in the books at all. But the humor is the same, and if you like seeing how ideas develop over time and multiple media this is a fascinating way to revisit Arthur Dent’s travels through the Universe. There is an anarchic quality to the radio broadcast that was (slightly) tamed for the books (I have seen neither the television nor movie versions) and having to get everything across in dialogue and sound effects put some interesting restrictions on things, but it gave me a new perspective on the whole enterprise.

The Labyrinth Index (Charles Stross)

The latest installment of the Laundry Files picks up not long after the previous one ends, though this one is narrated by Mhari Murphy – introduced into the series as Bob’s psycho ex-girlfriend, reintroduced as a PHANG (Laundry-speak for “vampire,” though the running joke is that the meaning of the acronym changes pretty much every time anyone asks) and a colleague, and now a fairly responsible and sympathetic character, at least as far as a vampire can be sympathetic. But it’s all about who you’re being compared to and there are things in this book that are soul-destroyingly evil, and that’s just on the good guys’ side. The American president has been forgotten – literally. Through a binding geas that renews when people sleep, the office and the office-holder has fallen out of the memory of nearly all Americans, a necessary step in the plan of the Nazgul (the American equivalent of the Laundry, now wholly coopted by the things they were supposed to be guarding against) to reawaken Cthulhu and bring about the end of humanity. The Black Pharaoh – the slightly-less-malevolent god who has taken over the British government – does not want this to happen, for his own reasons which Mhari will eventually explain as a form of beekeeping. Mhari and her small team – Pete, Brains, Janice, Mhari’s boyfriend Jim (often simply and affectionately referred to as Fuckboy), Derek, and the captive alfar blood mage Jar-Jar (who ends up being called Jon, which is a long story) – are sent to the US to fix this. Mayhem ensues. Stross is a captivating writer who knows how to tell a good story, and hidden in this grim story are flashes of humor and character enough to make you forget the bleak subject matter and the odd hole in how the narrative is framed (nothing that affects the plot, really, just a fourth-wall device that doesn’t quite work), and I eagerly look forward to the next Laundry installment.

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